Tag Archives: loudspeakers

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Nice room and I think awful sounding loudspeakers and I know what they are!

Short and sweet

Well, no sooner did I publish my short and sweet post, How many Wows, than I received another in my email box.

Bob Woodburger sent me the following message and picture that I could not resist sharing with you:

“Hi Paul,

I’m blown away by the MKII DAC. It’s Exceptionally real!

I hear space I never heard before.


The picture kind of says it all.

Thanks, Bob.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

The vanishing trick

Loudspeakers are quite the enigma.

On the one hand, one of our key purchasing decisions is based on their size and looks.

On the other hand, we want them to disappear.

And to make things even more interesting, we know that when it comes to speakers, bigger is better.

When we are giving a tour to someone, it’s always fascinating how the aspen speakers are presented.

“Wow, they are beautiful.”

This exclamation is typically followed by the touching and petting of them.

“Have a seat,” I say, “and let me show you how they disappear.”

And rarely does anyone ever question this instruction, odd as it might seem.

The job of the most visually dominant pieces in the room is to vanish.

That’s quite the trick.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Not me. Start with the room, then loudspeakers, sources, amplification, both preamplifier and power amplifier, or integrated amp and then AC power, unless your AC power is so bad that it hums or sags and then cabling.

The room has a bigger impact on sound than anything else and speakers have to belong in their room, or no chance of truly great sound.


Whenever I give advice about the order of importance for building from scratch a magical audio system I start like this:

  1. Speakers
  2. Amplifier
  3. AC power
  4. Source

This order is based on a few ideas, chief among them building a solid foundation of which the loudspeaker is key—if your speakers can’t disappear or lacking in musicality, not much that comes before them matters.

If the question is not how to build from scratch, but rather where to begin with an existing system, the sequencing order changes:

  1. Setup and room
  2. Examine the outcome
  3. Identify the weakness
  4. move forward

Here, the process is more layered. If we have great loudspeakers but a weak power foundation, we take one set of steps. If we have great sources and amplification but loudspeakers that refuse to disappear, the answer becomes obvious.

It is rare we get a chance to start from scratch.

Mostly, we’re sequencing our system improvements.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

PS Audio is building their own loudspeakers now and although I’ve not heard them, Anthony Cordesman, a reviewer I’ve enjoyed reading in the past, bought his review sample. Im pretty sure he didn’t pay retail…. 🙂

I built my own loudspeaker and with just a bit of EQ, it’s great sounding and beautiful, if a bit large. Very different than PS Audio’s offering in that mine is a coaxial design with a horn tweeter/midrange with a single crossover at 1500 Hz.

The perfect loudspeaker

As much as one would like to have such a thing as today’s headline, a perfect loudspeaker is a theoretical concept that does not exist in reality.

If there were to be such a beast, what would it look like?

Here’s a short list to get us started:

  1. Accurately reproduce the full audio spectrum: A perfect loudspeaker would be able to accurately reproduce all frequencies in the audio spectrum, from the lowest bass notes to the highest treble, without emphasizing or suppressing any particular frequency range.
  2. Have uniform frequency response across all frequencies, meaning that it would produce the same level of output at all frequencies. This would allow the listener to experience music as it was intended to be heard, with a neutral and balanced tonal quality.
  3. Be distortion-free producing no added harmonic content. The listener would hear only the original signal and not any artificial artifacts.
  4. Be time-coherent, producing sound that arrives at the listener’s ears at the same time, regardless of the frequency or location of the speaker.
  5. Be phase-coherent producing sound waves that are in phase with each other, meaning that their crests and troughs are aligned, with no phase cancellations or peaks.

While it is not currently possible to build a perfect loudspeaker, we can get pretty close.

I look forward to showing off what I consider to be about as close as it gets, the aspen series of speakers.

Perfect? No.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Some folks listen on axis and some loudspeakers are designed to be used this way, so a blanket statement that we don’t listen on-axis, is not totally correct. However, the bulk of this post is!!

What is flat?

How can flat-measuring loudspeakers sound different?

And for that matter, how can same-measuring-anything sound different?

The answer lies in a couple of areas. First, we do not measure all parameters that impact sound quality. In fact, as you will see below, we miss some of the most important opportunities for quantifying performance.

Second, even if we could measure everything how much weight do we assign to each parameter?

So the two things worth considering: what is it we’re measuring, and how much do measured differences matter?

Consider speaker crossover design. When matching a midrange driver to a tweeter, it is often the case the midrange driver has to be phase inverted for best performance. How many of us might wince at the idea one of three drivers in your speakers is out of phase? And yet, that is often the case.

And then we move on to perhaps the most important aspect of them all. What and how are we measuring response?

Loudspeakers are measured on axis (facing directly at the speaker).

We do not listen on axis. So perhaps a more important measurement is how smooth is the off-axis response?

Would it make more sense to publish measurements at the listening position?

Should we publish stereo measurements from the listening position?

Lots to unpack here and lots more to think about.

Flat measurements are a myth.

A flat-sounding system is when playback sounds like music and not HiFi.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl

I use horn loudspeakers, where a compression dome tweeter  operates from the low midrange at 1250 Hz to the highest frequencies we can hear and has much in common with the type of drivers Paul talks about here. However, with horns like mine, the speaker sensitivity is much greater than the type of speakers that utilize “normal” type drivers, such as electrostat’s, planar’s and conventional cone and dome type drivers.

Lighter than air

Here’s something crazy. The mass of the FR30 and FR20’s tweeter and midrange diaphragms is less than the air being moved.

Compare that with the heavier mass of even the best diamond-encrusted tweeter in the world, and, at least for me, I experience a moment’s pause.

A pause for two reasons. First, I never thought about air having mass. Second, if all that’s true, what does it mean for the sound of heavier-than-air tweeter and midrange technologies? Are their outputs colored by that extra mass?

Of course, the aspen tweeters and midranges are not the only drivers that are lower in mass than the air they move. Most well designed planar or electrostatic drivers have extremely low mass diaphragms, some falling into the same category as the Chris Brunhaver-designed aspen drivers.

I wonder how much of the natural, open, and uncolored upper end of the aspen loudspeakers is due to this head-scratching fact and how much is due to other factors like crossover design, etc. Even the very best exotic metal dome tweeters and midranges sound colored to me.

After focusing the past 40 years of listening to the top end through low-mass planar and ribbon designs, I suppose I’ve answered my own question.

Still, I wonder.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Success meter

If you’ve ever been to an audio show, you know the differences in stereo systems and loudspeakers can be extreme.

In one room, if you are fortunate enough to get the center seat, you’re required to put your head in a vice in order to enjoy perfect imaging.

In another room there’s a wide sweet spot that, while not as specific as the last room you visited, offers a broader perspective.

Still another room hasn’t any real bottom end but man! has it got dynamics.

And then there are the rooms that you do not even go in.

Room after room sounds remarkably different. Each room touts its system as state-of-the-art—something that clearly cannot be true unless there are a lot of possible states or the art category is very broad.

When we set up for a show, I am most pleased when I see lots of grins on the faces of listeners.

Repeat visitors are a blessing as well.

Once I am pleased with the system’s performance, it is the joy on people’s faces I watch for most.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

I’ve been saying it forever. The room matters the most!!

Differing viewpoints

Let me share an interesting experience.

At Octave Records, we have built a state-of-the-art mix room with the best equipment we know to exist: FR30 loudspeakers, BHK monoblock power amplifiers, BHK pre, DSMK2, Audioquest Dragon cables, a pair of custom 21″ subs. Fed from Octave masters, it sounds amazing.

And in Music Room 3, we have worked hard to create the same system (different subwoofer) so that when we work on either new product designs or we wish to make a final check on an Octave release, we can be assured what we are hearing is of verified reference quality.

Two rooms with nearly identical equipment, yet they do not sound the same.


Tonally, they are very close. MR3 has better deep bass, and Octave’s mixroom has a bit more immersive intimacy in the imaging.

In each room, I hear qualities not present in the other.

The difference, of course, is the room itself. MR3 is much, much bigger than Octave’s mixroom.

Which all brings to mind that even with the best setups and identical equipment, the room plays a much more significant role than I would like to think.

Both rooms are amazing.

They are just different.


Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Image height

It is not difficult to imagine left, right, and center imaging on a stereo system.

It’s also likely not too much of a stretch to understand depth. After all, a proper stereo recording reproduces depth as a measure of how far away from the recording microphones the instruments or performers are.

Harder for most people to grasp is imaging height. How is it that the left and right loudspeakers can provide an illusion of height?

When we’re recording a singer at Octave Records, they are typically facing directly at the microphone and in fairly close proximity. Being that close, how then on a good recording can we hear if the singer is seated or standing?

Typically, this is a result of how boundaries change sound. When you are seated the microphone (and you) are closer to the floor. Standing up is the opposite.

How does being closer to the floor sound? It’s easy to try a little experiment to find out. In a quiet room, start speaking in the middle of the room. Listen carefully to the quality of your voice. As you continue speaking and listening, move closer to a boundary wall. Note how your voice changes: a reinforcement of upper and lower tones will likely be evident.

It might be subtle but in a properly setup system and on a good recording it’s easy to hear height as well as depth.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek Audio and Paul McGowan of PS Audio, Intl.

I have diffusion on the back end of my listening room and a mixture of absorption and diffusion on the front wall, in back of my Altec 604 based loudspeakers and this works great. However, my room is large enough so I have the speakers six feet out into the room and my listening chair is about four feet from the wall in the rear of the room, so this works great, with no localization of the loudspeakers in the room, while great tonality and clarity. The side walls are all absorption and that’s been the one constant thing for me in all three of my listening rooms over the years.

Total absorption

One of my YouTube viewers writes:

“Paul, love almost all your videos. but. I think TOTAL ABSORTION behind the speakers is crucial. Reflection behind the speakers is just noise. PERIOD. WORST CASE. A glass window in the imaging space. PERIOD. Sorry.”

This is part of the old live-end vs. dead-end debate in rooms (the actual debate more centers on which end of the room to place absorptive materials). And from the way he is phrasing the question, it makes logical sense. Who wants noise?

The problems with the notion are many but chief among them is this notion that reflections are nothing but noise. In my experience, it is those reflections that are essential to achieving a live sound in the room. Properly managed with a bit of diffusion, it is those very reflections that can help bring a bit of magic to the soundstage.

That said, as with any rule of thumb, it isn’t a universal truth.

There are cases where the dead-end absorption method (or a variation of it) just might be the ticket to better sound. Imagine a smaller room where the main loudspeakers have no room behind them and cannot be pulled out from the front wall. An argument might easily be made that a bit of absorption on the front wall might sound preferable.

My preferred method of diffusion on the front wall (behind the speakers) is really only effective if there’s enough space between the rear of the speaker and the wall.

A bit of experimentation with both methods won’t ta